May 17, 2012

An Illustrated Life

Artist: JK5

Mixed media and tattoo artist Joseph Ari Aloi is a walking, illustrated retro-pop-culture encyclopedia. That is because Aloi – whose designs draw as much from his past as from his present and the future – fully embraces his inner child.

Consider the acronym JK5 under which the artist creates. Unsurprisingly, its letters derive from the Jedi Knights of Star Wars. Aloi’s life story – his adoption and his reunion with his birth mother – has also been filtered through the lens of the seminal 70’s and 80’s commercial entertainment of his youth, forming the crux of his present day creativity.

Within the artist’s world as in the world of the child – fiction and fact are often interchangeable, forging a highly personalized code of meaning as subjective as, and fully informing, each of his prolific works. From his marketable Flowbots to the alternative tats; all are symbolic testament to Aloi’s personal journey.

This is what imbues the designer’s depicted fantasy realms with the atmosphere and the infrastructure that keep them in high demand. It may also impart their potential to one day constitute a global franchise.

Upcoming European gallery shows, a book launch slated for fall, talk of a kids clothing line and even a feature film in the works will not prevent the soon-to-be father of two from hosting Tag-In for Kid-In at T.A.P.S Gallery this month, to celebrate the creativity of childhood. And that’s just one of the topics broached in our conversation with JK5.


Childhood and youth seem like motifs in your work. How do you explain this?

I’ve been one with my inner child since the beginning. A lot of what I’m communicating is about the womb-ride to the present. I was a hyper active, super-creative drawing machine as a child. At forty-one, little’s changed. A childlike sense of awe and the spirit of exploration are vital to developing a distinct voice for any artist. In Buddhism, it’s a richly symbolic, full-circle cycle back to the child, as we grow deeper into adulthood.

What are some childhood memories that really made an impact on your life as an artist?

Seeing Star Wars in the theater in 1977, when I was seven, was mind blowing. That movie, the toys and the merchandise – what they did for our imagination – was akin to the death star exploding. That, and being told I was adopted at the same time. So, the mythological story of Star Wars resonated with me on a profoundly personal level.

Your work often invokes quite comprehensive worlds: Flowbots for Kid Robot, and even tattooing as an iconographic depiction of ones’ life. What inner as well as outer worlds do you tap for these?

Star Wars was an entire universe. It’s woven into our lives more than any other world. It’s sampled and culled from more than any other movie. I think subconsciously I’ve been creating with that breadth all along. I draw from life, as well as create something from nothing – from whatever pops into my head. This synthesis was the start of my creating worlds. I just went inward and created my own worlds from the very beginning. My art was always a vehicle for all the complex forces at work inside me. I’m tapping my inner and outer world of stimuli, and assimilating, designing from, and making it my own all the time.

I think Star Wars is an obsession?

My obsession started with the fantasy, the colors, the environments, the creatures and species, the archetypes, the love triangle, the scale of it! The coooooolest costumes, The Force, the quotes, the score by John Williams.

Then, the merchandising: the action-figures, the vehicles, the play sets. They formed me in so many ways. I felt like George Lucas, like his entire art department and toy-designers at once. Yoda introduced me to the Tao, while being smacked by nuns in Catholic school. It was pure escape, yet so real.

Then you get older and learn about the humanity, the complexities, the reflection upon 70’s society that the film really is; with its code of the Jedi Knight, its light sabers.

Star Wars is just a small facet of all my visual languages, but it is the most pervasive and creatively influential. It was the beginning of my passion for symbols, for world religions, for signs communicating to us everywhere, for the warrior within, dualities, oneness, and spirituality.

What other childhood pop-iconography made an impact and found its way into your work?

Hannah Barbara, Sesame Street, The Magic Garden, The Electric Company, Cop Shows, The Playboy Bunny, Corvettes, Grease, The Brady Bunch, BMX logos, Burt Reynolds, Trans Ams, Wonder Woman, Super Friends, Smurfs, Playskool, Play mobile, Buck Rogers, Close Encounters, Kiss, Ozzy Osborne, Michael Jackson, its endless….

Did being adopted effect your creativity? If so, in what way?

Being adopted is the beating-heart true center of my life-story. That desperate, confused, amorphous search for ones true identity started me on a serious mission to design, define and constantly reinvent myself. It’s why I identify with aliens, outsiders, misfits, nerds, unique human beings, sadness, isolation, and darkness. I was raised by loving, supportive folks, but internally all these other conflicting forces were at play.

How did meeting your biological mother affect your creativity?

I got a letter from my biological mother in 1993 in my senior year at RISD, 23 years, 5 months, and 19 days after I was born. I’d planned to search for her worldwide but she beat me to do it. A long story, but ultimately extremely positive. It was the greatest gift of my lifetime. Meeting her at her tiny, cluttered, wild, bohemian Sixth Avenue West Village apartment – flying back into the womb while a senior in art school and just starting to get tattooed to define myself – then flying back out into the world after a weekend together of laughing, crying, drinking wine and talking ‘til dawn. Let’s just say I’ve been drawing and creating with the hottest fever for life, meaning and self-definition ever since. Nineteen years later, she’s a grandmother (of my child) after giving me up in 1969. I say it often, but, “the circle is now complete” – in the words of Darth Vader.

Kid-in came about from our inability to dichotomize professional and personal creativity (creating life). How did parenthood affect your creativity?

I’m always drawing what I’m living, so I started with new graphics and languages as soon as my wife was pregnant. Twyla Maggie Snowdrop. Her name sparked a whole world of styles, characters, and forms. Then, Elmo, Goodnight Moon, the complications we had with Twyla in the beginning, all got documented. It’s the full circle back to your original forming.

My output has always been spastic, but for the last three years it’s expanded exponentially with the most dear and fragile incentive; my child. We’ll see what happens when our boy joins the world in July. I have a light-saber waiting to bestow!

In one interview, you mentioned that impending fatherhood inspired a toddler-character with a pencil strapped to his back. How has having a girl affected your creativity?

I’m rather in touch with my feminine side so having a girl simply fueled me to illustrate her spirit, give language to her being. It’s just different energies, but it all gets visualized. She’s just growing into herself and she blows my mind and inspires me every moment.

How does she react to your products? Any funny DIY’s made at home?

She loves my stuff! It warms me so. Her reactions from the beginning to my toys, drawings, paintings, my full bodysuit of tattoos, has always been one of fascination and pleasure. I’m her biggest toy! Cutie Cane is her favorite Flowbot – and Matt Houston, the 3-inch vinyl version of my best friend.

We draw together all the time – now we’re making up songs everyday, learning Michael Jackson moves, listening to Elton Johns Tiny Dancer. She brings home super-rad art and craft projects from school every day. It’s really in her – music and performing – even more than the visual art, which my Wife and I are stoked about!

Are all children artists? What does Twyla want to be when she grows up?

Yes, they all are, but it’s about whatever they love to do. About being nurtured and cultivated by the parent, us letting them become all that they want to, with enthusiastic guidance and positivity. A child needs to be free and structured at the same time. Once they learn to be free and creative within a structure, that’s the path of an artist. All humans were children once and always, art is about maintaining that essence.

Right now I think Twyla wants to be a self-styled performer; guitar in hand, just the right dress and sparkly socks. Dancing queen, princess, elf? We shall see.

Any upcoming shows, projects you’d like to mention?

I’m constantly making work for new gallery shows. Next will be London and LA. Then there’s a massive monograph of my life’s work with Rizzoli, scheduled for a fall 2013 release.

Lots of commercial illustration, logo and design projects. And a new toy just released with Kidrobot called the RJ-K5 Astrofresh Basketball Droid!

What other child-focused projects are in the works?

I’m working on building JK5 into a global media and communications brand. A kids clothing line, feature films, TV, video games, graphic novels, new media, books, toys, whole new product categories!

A clothing line? How did this come about and when can my son be wearing your art?

The spark for my own collection was a mid-70’s Sears Christmas wish book catalog. But this one was special: a well-designed magic template for a film or TV fantasy. Kids love to play dress up, and that’s what I want J KIDS 5 to be: boys and girls of the cosmos, wizards and knights that are blossoming little fashion creators all their own.

I know and love a lot of kid’s brands, but I think there’s a need for something super-fresh and original, energized and fantastical, done in all the right, ecologically-conscious and beautifully-designed ways. A cohesive wardrobe system to mix and match or go head to toe.

Pierre Cardin in the 60’s had this mod, very simple, graphic, black and white geometric Collection. I see echoes of that in mine, but with a twist: the future world of style and expression. All kids out there have their own crazy moves! I just want ‘em to look and feel cooler than ever: empowered, radiant, magical, unique, wild, weird, and wondering.

-Larissa Zaharuk

Wondering where to see more of JK5?

KID-IN is pleased to announce an interactive afternoon of creativity, exploration and live wall-tagging at T.A.P.S Gallery, hosted by  JK5.

We invite all young, upcoming artists to come tag the space – and celebrate the creative freedom embodied by child art and Street Art alike!

A sneak preview; limited edition t-shirts featuring his JK5 / KID-IN logo – will be available for sale.

672 Driggs
Williamsburg, Brooklyn